First of all - this isn’t anything remotely resembling regime change. Mike Russell won the vote for party president by a landslide (though Craig Murray came up on a surprisingly high 25% of the vote). As far as I can tell, the leadership still has a fairly comfortable majority on the National Executive Committee, the party’s ultimate governing body. However, the dominant story of the night is the success (surprising to some but not me) of anti-GRA candidates across the elections, and the defeat of pro-GRA incumbents. The most horrifying results of the night (Caroline McAllister for Women’s convener, Lynne Anderson for Equalities) speak for themselves. Both of them are notorious social media trolls and one actually helped found a hate group. Unsurprisingly, this has been accompanied by a wave of online bile targeted at activists from the youth, student and LGBT+ affiliates of the party. There has to be some introspection over how we got to this point.
The responsibility for a wave of bigots and cranks getting elected rests in large part with the party leadership, for not adequately supporting the previous women and equalities conveners in rooting out transphobia from the party, and doing next to nothing to foster a more inclusive culture itself. Closer to conference, the party leadership’s outriders also waged an all-out media campaign against opposition candidates as being puppets for malicious outside forces and fundamentally illegitimate. Although anti-GRA backlash was a large part of why “women’s pledge” members got elected, the wider success of opposition candidates can be explained by a membership that clearly wanted to send a message thoroughly repudiating the leadership for being out of touch, undemocratic and vacillating on independence. The reactionary wing of the party were the only ones organised enough to channel that dissatisfaction. Some of the blame for that rests on progressives for being so complacent and refusing to take the actual politics of the matter seriously, or to engage members on the issue rather than seeing them as a mob to be kept away.
The response to transphobic candidates winning places from actual trans members themselves - of despair and fear for their own safety and wellbeing - is entirely justifiable. Much less justifiable are the numerous cis allies and progressives indulging in cope and blaming the loss on misinformation, conspiracies, casting doubt on the legitimacy of the vote and doubling down on anti-democratic procedural rulebook arguments. What none of these grasp is the reality that the capacity for bigotry has always existed in the party, and that this defeat was political. And like all political outcomes, there were multiple impulses, often conflicting ones, at play. And the reality is that one side did the alliance-building, propagandising and drawing of lines that normal political initiatives entail, while the other side didn’t. Hence we are where we are.
Back when the GRA was still official ScotGov policy, it was understandable, perhaps even justifiable, for progressives to align themselves with a leadership besieged by fanatical opposition from special interest transphobic groups. But as soon as the government made the decision to subject trans people in Scotland to a second consultation followed by outright parking the legislation, it should have become clear to everyone invested in trans allyship that relying on Sturgeon’s cabinet to do the right thing all by itself was not going to save the day. It also should have made clear that the strategy adopted by OFI and pro-trans party conveners at the time - of “lowering the temperature” of debate and appealing to moderation through consensus-building with crazed zealots - was not going to work. However, few progressives in the party have detached themselves from the official line, limiting their ability to speak to the wider membership discontent with the status quo, which regressive cranks are all too eager to exploit for their own gain.
Nonetheless, there were a few positive developments. Alyn Smith was the most aggressive media bulldog against opposition candidates, decrying opponents as nefarious trojan horse outsiders, who also used his position as policy convener to keep contentious issues off the agenda while simultaneously trying to scrap minority representation on the NEC. His ouster from both his convener and NEC seat are to be welcomed - not least by a left wing opponent of the Growth Commission, Chris Hanlon. To my mind, this is the single largest repudiation of the party leadership, and will significantly impede their ability to rig debates on policy. Another bright spot for the left has been the CWG winning an effective majority on the policy development committee, including Rory Steel, the excellent Tim Rideout of the Scottish Currency Group (SCG) and and Kairin von Sweeden of the Modern Money Scotland (MMS) think tanks. Graham Campbell’s victory as BAME convener, and Jamie Szymkowiak’s victory as disabilities convener are also things very much worth celebrating. As is Chris McEleny’s failure to get elected anywhere.
When I wrote my excoriating, lengthy polemic against the Common Weal Group at the start of the month, it was widely applauded and shared by several pro-leadership progressives, revelling and finding validating their own position through the fact that a leftist and former CWGer such as myself could denounce it so thoroughly. I say to those pro-leadership progressives now: time to read the writing on the wall and abandon your uncritical loyalty to a leadership that has time and again thrown you under the bus. Aside from a wave of anti-GRA sentiment, the insurgent candidates on this NEC were swept to victory on promises of bold left wing policies, real structural reform, opening the party processes up to members and discontent with the party leadership. If we don’t challenge them on our own terms by fighting for a radical platform, real democracy, engagement with the movement grassroots and accountability from the leadership, then the mass of party members who want these things will turn to opportunistic reactionaries who claim they will. George Kerevan is right when he emphasises the need for “the new left forces in the party [to] consolidate their important but still vulnerable ideological bridgehead inside the SNP”, but that consolidation must also include a solid and unflinching commitment to intersectional liberation causes and opposition to all forms of oppression.
For this reason and more, it’s time for us to step up to the plate and organise in explicit and open manner. Factionalism is here to stay. Slates are here to stay. We got thoroughly outmanoeuvred because we refused to actually engage in political strategy while our opponents did so relentlessly. The last three years of tailing the leadership have delivered us this catastrophe. Yes, declaring our own independence from the leadership line and adopting a confrontational stance against both the bigots and their passive bureaucratic enablers higher up will increase fractiousness in the party. No, it won’t harm the cause of independence or sabotage our electoral chances (I mean, have you seen the Tories and Brexiteers these last few years?). Although I remain of the view that the CWG’s strategy doesn’t have the political nous to actually build real left wing strength in the long term, they evidently had enough to win internal elections. Pro-trans progressives so far haven’t demonstrated that. We must make common cause with leftists inside the party (including non-transphobic members associated with CWG) to build a united progressive front that can channel real political discontent at the leadership away from reactionary ends and towards radical, democratic horizons. The mandate produced by the results of these internal elections can be read in one of two ways - as a repudiation of the SNP leadership’s centralising, undemocratic impulses and lack of seriousness on independence, or as a repudiation of its socially inclusive values. If we want to fight for a movement and country that protects and supports our trans siblings and other marginalised groups while radically transforming our society for the better, we have to fight for it to be the former. That work has to start now.